The vexed issue of who Jesus is, who he claimed to be, and who the New Testament writers claimed he was, is one that will never go away as long as humanity exists. The piece by Dr Vincent Taylor, from the Expository Times, January 1962, Vol. 73, pp. 116-118, and reproduced at http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/22328.htm, is one more argument contributing to this fascinating debate.
Taylor’s argument is one that is slightly different from the usual ones that make such assertions as ‘Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God’ or ‘Jesus was not divine’. I note that Taylor is not denying the Divinity of Christ, and that he stresses that “it should be recognized at the outset that the question is not whether Jesus is divine, but whether He is actually described as THEOS and whether we… are justified in speaking of Him as ‘God’.”
I have to disagree with Taylor on some points. Firstly, he speaks of Barrett, who contends that “nowhere else [apart from Romans 9:5] does Paul call Christ God”. However, in Colossians, Paul refers to Jesus as the image of the invisible God who was before all things, and for whom all things were created (Col 1:15-20). This is another of those examples where we need to look at the context of what the biblical writers are saying. While Paul may not literally use the words ‘Christ is God’, he clearly implies it in statements such as ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, as well as saying that God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him. Paul’s Christology is clearly based on the fact that he saw Jesus as none other than God come to us in person. When Taylor quotes Colossians 2:9 (‘For it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells’), he seems to miss the point of the word ‘complete’. He also says that “nowhere else does the Apostle [Paul] speak of the divine indwelling in Him.” But, as we have just seen, in the previous chapter we have Paul stating that God was in Christ. Unless I am misunderstanding what Taylor is attempting to put forward, he seems to be contradicting himself in these statements.
The New Testament writers seem to be in unison about their convictions about who Jesus was and is. Taylor, however, seems to make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He quotes some verses that, he admits, clearly say that Jesus is God, but then he seems to ignore them in favour of his argument. However the few verses that he quotes cannot be ignored. They are there for a reason. The New Testament seems clear that there is equal relationship in the Godhead, that there is unity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that the Son is equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit in being God.
The point is also made by Taylor that “like the author of Hebrews he [the writer of John’s Gospel] thinks and speaks of Christ in the category of Sonship”. Whilst this statement is true in itself, John does not exclusively speak of Christ in terms of Sonship. There seems to be consistency throughout John’s Gospel as to who Jesus is. In John 1 it is clearly stated that ‘He dwelt among us’. The true translation of this states that He ‘tabernacled’ among us. The people to whom this was originally written would have clearly seen the term ‘tabernacled’ as meaning nothing other than ‘God among us’. The tabernacle in the Old Testament was the place where God dwelt. This fact also refutes Taylors statement that “‘Only-begotten’ is as far as John is prepared to go”.
As well as John, Matthew says, in telling of Jesus’ birth, that ‘All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”)’ (Matthew 1:22).
The points being made here are crucial to our understanding of the nature of God. This is a God who, in Jesus, comes down to the ugliness of humanity and dies in our place. This is a God who can relate to our sufferings. This is the crucified God who has suffered and died, the righteous for the unrighteous.
Perhaps the passage that appears to cause the most confusion about whether or not Jesus saw himself as God is the story of Jesus’ discussion with the rich ruler who addressed Him as ‘Good Master’. Jesus’ response is ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ (Luke 18:18-43). Taylor states that “these issues have constantly caused embarrassment and must continue to do so if without qualification Jesus is described as God”. I used to struggle with this as well until I heard a brilliant explanation from my pastor. In this passage, Jesus was challenging the rich ruler not just with what it meant to follow Jesus, but by wanting him to make sure he knew what he was getting himself into when he was asking this question about eternal life. By saying ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’, Jesus was, in effect, saying, “before you ask this question, you need to realise who you’re talking to. You’re about to have a conversation with God. So be sure of what you’re asking”. We need to be careful to not take the words of Jesus at ‘face value’. They need to be taken in the context in which they were written.
As for Taylor’s assertion that “the one clear ascription of Deity to Christ, ‘My Lord and my God’, in the New Testament is addressed to Him in His Risen and Exalted life, and breathes the atmosphere of worship” is true, it is not the only time that Jesus accepted worship. The Magi worshiped him at his birth, when Jesus walked no water the disciples worshiped him (Matthew 14), the man who had been born blind, worshiped Jesus after he had been healed (John 9). Jesus also forgave sins, much to the horror of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. The reason they couldn’t handle this was that forgiving sins was something that only God could do.
John also records Jesus’ assurance that Father and Son are in eternal unity, wanting us to enter their circle of Trinity, love and grace. The Bible says Jesus was truly God but also truly one of us. His humanity was not destroyed by his divinity. As with everything in life, we have to live with an element of mystery. The Bible prophesied of Jesus in Isaiah 53: ‘surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’. God has entered into the depths of human lostness, pain, aloneness and sense of injustice.
Greg Clarke, of the Centre for Public Christianity, says “the core of Christian teaching is common: Jesus reveals God to the world, and his death and reported resurrection are understood to achieve peace between wayward human beings and a holy God. That mystery is at the heart of any understanding of Christian faith”. Clarke’s statement is true, not just because it has been a core understanding of the Christian faith, but because it is biblical.
Such eminent New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington strongly assert that Jesus is none other than God himself. Wright says that Jesus saw himself as Israel’s God returning in person. In an article on Jesus and the identity of God, he says the following:
“In Jesus himself…we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.” (http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_JIG.htm)
In his ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’ he also states,
“as part of his human vocation grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.” (Wright, N.T., Jesus and the Victory of God, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1997, p. 653)
Whilst Taylor does not deny that Jesus is divine, he seems to diminish Jesus’ divinity in his statements. Such curious statements as “to describe Christ as God is to neglect the sense in which He is both less and more, man as well as God within the glory and limitations of His Incarnation.” As N.T. Wright says, it all depends on what kind of God you are looking for in Jesus.
Such is the nature of God that there will always be an element of mystery in our limited understanding of who this God is. That is not an easy excuse to try to get away from the difficult and crucially important questions that Taylor raises. However, in this life, we can never fully comprehend the idea of God in Trinity, yet being one God. We can never comprehend the idea of God made man but still being God. Such is the beauty of God and the limitations of our human understanding. Now we see through a glass darkly, but one day we will know, just as we are fully known.